Thursday, November 01, 2018

An Algorithm That Made Me See Myself For Who I Truly Am 

Koerner Hall, Toronto

“Welcome to Koerner Hall”, said a casually dressed man, who seemed so comfortable on the stage that the audience hardly noticed him.
“Welcome Welcome,” nudging the crowd to settle and focus, “Tonight we welcome you to the third concert in our current series and to enjoy returning Torontonian, Chilly Gonzales.” A shower of appreciative applause. “We remind you to please turn off your phones and mobile devices, to disconnect from the outside world for a few hours and lose yourself in the music.”

I almost cried.

This felt like the first vacation I’ve had in over eighteen months.

I don't want to bore you with a "woe is me" list of how busy I am because everyone is busy. Everyone has their own stuff.

I don't want to whine about how much time I spend looking at screens. I could just look away, couldn't I?

I don't want to "humble-brag" about how volunteering for non-profit advocacy organizations takes up all my free time (#humblebrag).
“What Camus called, the acts of a mechanical life.”
I will say the last year or so has been rife with worries of employment (too much vs too little), financial stress (I'll just fix this… oh God, everything needs replacing), poor health (dental procedures and headaches to spare) and general overall queasiness with modernity in all its forms (everything that's old is new again, like 1930s style "populism"). My days are reruns of waking, commuting, working, eating, more working, commuting, eating, sleeping. What Camus called “the acts of a mechanical life.” So when I really needed a holiday the most, I've been most unable to take one. Which is why these hours in the dark, disconnected from the world but connected to everyone else in that concert hall seemed like the most invigorating thing I'd done in a very long time. How did I end up here? Clever marketing.

Oh clever marketer, you soothsayer to the masses, your dagger done pierced my heart, nay, my soul (if there truly is such a thing). Your game, your little invented game devastated me like no spurned lover ever could. You left me deflated and lost. Your suggestion, via a promoted Twitter post that the third item in my “Discovery Playlist” would be the title of my biography was an insightful low point. You urged, "Seek it out now and to thine own self be true”. OK, I’ll play along, I thought. What harm? I’ve long moaned about how Spotify’s recommendations just don’t get me. Based on the artists you listen to, your “Discovery” playlist should be a slam-dunk of self selected music, but what Spotify doesn’t realize and what they’ll never know is whether I liked or even heard the music I played. They think they see you for what you are, which is not who you hope to be. I may play music from my past as a comfort but that’s not who I aspire to be.

Yet, here I was, following their ploy, falling into their trap. What I found shook me like a Buzzfeed headline that read, “You won’t believe what number three is!” There in the third spot of a playlist generated by my own behaviour was a late Paul Simon track, “Can’t Run But”. Oh good, a late Paul Simon song is the “title of my biography”. Contemplative with a hint of social awareness and a soupçon of cultural blindness. The title of the song is completed in the chorus as “I can’t run but I can walk much faster” and no, I don’t know what it means but it spoke to me. What did it say? It said, “You, you are old. You are white. You want to appear edgy and risqué but actually don’t want to be edgy or risqué because edgy, risqué old white guys dress stupidly and you really can’t carry off the required skinny jeans, funky skater shoes and loosely gathered scarves." Also, and here’s the real nut punch of critical self analysis, "you are an independent thinker or so you believe as you snuggle into the comfortable softness of the middle of everything. You don’t break the rules. You don’t follow the rules. That's because you don’t have to - you are the rule, not the exception to it. You are the median baseline on the graph from which all deviations are measured.”

Chilly Gonzales
Chilly Gonzales at the piano

Well, that’s a bit much. After all it’s just a stupid playlist that was created by an inhuman algorithm. A string a math. They don’t know me. The same way that Etsy thinks I would really be interested in a handmade doily. I’m really not. I don’t even see the point of a doily. Or how Pinterest is under the impression that all I really want to look at are coquettish young women looking coyly over their shoulder while standing astride a road bike. I mean, sure, one time. One time! Still. They don’t know me. That’s not really me. Is it?

What if it is? What if all of these companies are right? What if in my aging decrepitude I’m even worse than I was in my youthful decrepitude. Am I really the same stupid guy with never-aging tastes while I age tastelessly? Probably. There’s a 90% chance that I haven’t matured a single iota, that I’ve gracelessly tripped and stumbled into middle age. I liked Coke as a kid. Now I like Jack and Coke. Is that really any kind of personal development? I still dress like I did in high school. Running shoes, jeans and t-shirts. I like to joke that my idea of dressing up is wearing a shirt with buttons. Even wearing a t-shirt that says, “My other shirt has buttons” would be a step up. I used to own a car but then it just seemed like a waste of money for something that sat parked for more than 98% of the time. Long ago I did the math of car ownership that didn’t work out so now I ride a bike everywhere, just like I did in university, so thirty years later I’m still riding a bike. Maybe if I had kids who had to get to soccer practice, it’d be different (I doubt it, I’d probably just buy bikes for the kids). There’s a saying "If you're not a socialist at twenty, you have no heart, and if you're not a conservative at forty, you have no brain.” but here I am, well beyond that point and I’m further from being a conservative than I’ve ever been.

Still, Spotify surprised me with their featured “upcoming shows in your area.” A concert of an artist I listen to a lot at a venue I've been wanting to go to appeared and it was listed early enough that I could actually get tickets. The concert was even better than I expected and the concert hall was great. It occurred to me that for at least one moment a digital service really did “get me” and for once I'm grateful for the faceless algorithm that warmed my heart and gave me my best vacation of the year.

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